Kate Harding: “I have lost my husband” could not be more accurate—it feels like a carelessness

I have been widowed. It seems surreal to be writing that sentence, and yet it is indisputably true. I was there; I know. My husband, a consultant anaesthetist and intensivist, took his own life on 23 October. He had been suffering from depression, and was three days away from his first appointment with a psychiatrist for a medication review. His illness was triggered last year by his first ever complaint, made in the UK to the General Medical Council, just as we packed the last of our possessions into a NZ-bound shipping container, and signed away our house to its new owners. Although the complaint was thrown out in due course, as his family, friends, and colleagues fully expected it to be, this took five months, and the strain that this put him under was immense. Once we finally made the move to Northland, he enjoyed his new life hugely, making the most of every opportunity to be in, on, or near the water. He did well on an SSRI, which kicked in after five weeks, and he made a positive impression on his new work colleagues, gaining a reputation as a straight talker with an exceptional confidence and ability as a doctor, something I always admired and envied in him.

His depression recurred four months ago, and this time, the medication didn’t work—and may have made things worse. I am still in a state of disbelief much of the time regarding what has happened as a result. To say that I feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame is an understatement. As both his wife and a doctor myself, I am simply appalled that I let him go this way. The phrase “I have lost my husband” could not be more accurate—it does feel like a carelessness, to me, like he slipped through my fingers while I looked the other way. I went on a dog walk with my daughter; I returned to find my husband dead. It was broad daylight, and my son was metres away in his bedroom. He had used—what else?—anaesthetic drugs IV. CPR was entirely futile, but naturally I went through the motions anyway.

I can report that a state of calm really does descend in such extreme circumstances, even in someone who fears emergency scenarios as much as I do. It seemed perfectly normal to be attempting to resuscitate my inanimate husband, at one point with my foot, as I talked to the 111 operator; to be applying shock paddles once the community defibrillator had arrived; to be discussing adrenaline with the paramedics when they came on the scene. To be putting a duvet over him and a pillow under his head, and to be kissing him goodbye. To be helping the children to do the same, before he was taken away by the ambulance. To be giving my statement to the police, shortly afterwards.

The first week after his death is now a blur. Sleep was only possible with hypnotics. I lost five kilos. I worried about the children constantly. People came and went, endlessly. The house was overrun. I could eat nothing, yet food appeared at hourly intervals, along with flowers. The kindness of our friends and neighbours was, and continues to be, extraordinary. I have been told repeatedly that there was nothing I could have done; I know that this is untrue, but it is easier to nod, and to agree.

Widowhood sucks. There isn’t much time to grieve, for starters—I have become a full-time administrator. If I am not at the lawyers’ office, I am at the bank, or at the funeral directors (paying for the world’s cheapest funeral—Rich would be proud of me, given my newly-impoverished state) or dealing with builders (the house we moved into recently does not have its code of compliance), or setting up schooling for the kids back in the UK, or meeting with estate agents. We are returning to Britain—to rain, and Brexit, and the crisis-ridden NHS. To general practice—reluctant GP no longer, in view of my need to make a living! To my husband’s shattered and bewildered family. To mine, who just want us close again. To our friends and former colleagues, all of whom are desperate to help us in any way that they can. To the lush beauty of the Herefordshire countryside, its oak trees and apple orchards; to the River Wye. I love both New Zealand and Britain, and can live in either; what I am pondering is how to remain in medicine: the fear of a complaint now looms even larger in my professional life than it did before, given the consequences of my husband’s, ironically one of the best doctors that I have ever known. How to remain in medicine, when I couldn’t even keep my own husband alive.

Richard, you were such a vivid presence, full of energy and verve. You were funny, impulsive, adventurous, kind. You loved your wife, your children, and your dogs. You were always dashing off to swim around an island, or to go sea-kayaking, or to fit in a power yoga class. I feel like you should be coming home around now, from an overseas conference, perhaps, one that has lasted rather longer than usual; I can’t begin to imagine how we are going to live without you, as it seems that we must. We have made a start, and I promise that we will do our best to keep going. I know about mortgage rates now, and how much that boat of yours cost. I can change a printer cartridge, and talk ply and cedar cladding with the builder. I have much else to learn, not least how to raise two teenagers on my own, but I will give it all my best shot. May you rest in peace, and know how much you are loved.

Kate Harding is a general practitioner and hospice doctor who grew up in Brussels. She has worked in many parts of the UK, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. She is returning with her family from Northland, NZ to Herefordshire to live and work in December, following the untimely death of her husband Richard.


Competing interests: None declared.